Central Airport is yet another of William Wellman’s lesser-known pre-Codes – but the good news is that this one is available on DVD, released as one of a batch of Warner Archive features starring Richard Barthelmess. It’s not one of Wellman’s very greatest, but it is still highly enjoyable – and highly characteristic of this director, packing in a lot of breathtaking aviation stunts and following people who travel from town to town as part of an air circus. In his pre-Codes, Wellman always has a feeling for wanderers, and for people who have to put on a performance to earn their livings.
It is also a characteristic role for Barthelmess, who plays an aviator in several of his greatest films – so, watching him as a death-defying pilot in this, I found myself often reminded of his roles in movies like The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Only Angels Have Wings. The first time I watched this movie, I assumed his character was also a First World War veteran, as in the classic movie he made with Wellman a little later the same year, Heroes For Sale – but, watching a second time, I failed to spot anywhere where this is stated outright, though I think it is suggested at one point.
I was interested to see that Barthelmess has several scenes at the start of the film where he doesn’t speak a single word, but uses his silent movie techniques of showing his emotions through facial expression alone – something another silent movie actor, Richard Arlen, also does in the opening scenes of the last Wellman talkie I wrote about, Dangerous Paradise. At the start of Central Airport, Barthelmess’ character, Jim Blaine, is a pilot working for a passenger airline, whose plane crashes during a heavy rainstorm. (There’s always a danger of rain if you are in a movie directed by Wellman!) The earliest glimpse of Barthelmess sees him lying on the ground unconscious – then coming round for long enough to grab a piece of mirror and use it to alert a plane passing overhead to his plight. He is then seen in hospital, with his arms in traction, glimpsing a newspaper headline which says that an inquiry has found him to blame for the crash – a single tear rolls down his cheek. The next scene sees him on a train, with his arm in a sling – he looks sad and withdrawn, but gradually comes alive as he spots a plane overhead carrying out some spectacular stunts. By the time he gets off the train he is bubbling over with enthusiasm as he speaks his first words, greeting his parents. (Warner Brothers character actor Grant Mitchell has a small role as his father).
It turns out that the plane was being flown by his younger brother, Neil (Tom Brown) – introducing a sibling rivalry which runs all through the film. While Neil’s aviation career is just starting, Jim’s seems to be over. He finds himself working in a bank, in scenes which show the way forward to Heroes For Sale , as Barthelmess is glimpsed through barred windows, suggesting how trapped he feels. However, Jim soon finds his way out as he meets a beautiful wing-walker, Jill Collins (Sally Eilers) , who does a double-act with her pilot brother. When her brother is killed in an air crash, Jim takes over the role of stunt pilot, and the couple are soon in love.
Barthelmess and Eilers have some mischievous, sexy scenes together which are very definitely pre-Code – and it is made clear that their characters are sleeping together without being married. However, Jill longs to be married (there’s a scene where she slips a ring on and off her finger with a wistful expression on her face) – and, when Jim tells her that pilots have no business marrying because of the dangers of their job, she decides there is no future in the relationship. The film plunges into melodrama as Jim is badly injured in an air crash, and, while he is recovering in hospital, Jill marries his brother, Neil – who is standing in for him as pilot, so apparently feels free to take over his whole life while he is about it. When a heartbroken Jim discovers what has happened, he goes away and begins a life as a mercenary, flying dangerous missions all over the world and becoming increasingly battered in the process, as he loses an eye in one place and a heel somewhere else.
It would be easy enough for the film to portray Jill as simply heartless and selfish – and the trailer, included on the Warner Archive DVD, indeed does this, proclaiming in large letters “Desperately he sought for death – because he loved an unfaithful girl… more than life!” However, I don’t think the film bears out this impression at all – Jill, Neil and Jim are all portrayed sympathetically and painted in shades of grey. Wellman’s pre-Code films tend to be very sympathetic to women who find themselves torn between feelings for two men, as with Mary Astor’s character in Other Men’s Women, and this movie is no exception.
I won’t go through all the later plot twists packed into this fast-moving 75-minute melodrama, but will just say that the brothers are thrown together again by a series of coincidences and Jim ends up having to risk his life to rescue Neil, while the elements do their worst again, with storms and fog. The aviation footage is all very exciting and convincingly staged, as you’d expect from Wellman. Just editing to say I’ve noticed from the imdb that Alfred E Green is listed as a second, uncredited director for this movie – I don’t know why, maybe Wellman was ill? It is still unmistakably his film, anyway. I also failed to mention that the screenwriters were Rian James and James Seymour, fresh from their work on 42nd Street.
The most famous thing about this film is that John Wayne has a very small part as an extra where he dies a hero – but I’ve got to admit I totally missed this the first time I watched the movie, and I still find it impossible to recognise Wayne in this brief sequence as he is so far in the distance! There is also a brief role for James Murray, star of King Vidor’s great silent film The Crowd, who has small parts in several of Wellman’s 1930s films.
Here’s a link to an article about the film at the TCM site, which mentions that Wellman was forced to delete footage of Barthelmess’ first crash in the movie in case it damaged the aviation industry – however, the film contains two other crashes anyway!